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Glasgow to Edinburgh the long way

A 1000 mile solo bike ride around Scotland, at a pace to enjoy the people, sights and sounds, and to have an adventure. I was about to turn 66 with a need to challenge myself. Cycling in early April definitely provided challenges, but I loved every minute!

Oxenholme station – ready to go
Oxenholme station – ready to go

After many months of preparation, training and eager anticipation, I realised I was pretty apprehensive! It felt a bit unreal, and on arriving at Glasgow Central, I pushed the bike out of the station and along the busy pavement, but was surprised that the moment to actually get on my bike and pedal was quite a momentous event. It meant that I had started!

Crossing from Arran
I had two or three hours' cycling on Arran before the crossing from Lochranza to Claonaig over a sparkling sea, with the mountains of the northern part of the island gradually receding. There was no opportunity to hesitate at Claonaig – there’s nothing but a ferry slipway!
Picturesque Tarbert
Picturesque Tarbert

The sunny weather of late March tempted me to sketch the scene, the marina half filled with gleaming white sailing yachts, the traditional Loch Fyne fishing skiff in the foreground a reminder of the herring fishing heritage of the village, while visitors and locals sat outside cafés, adding to my feeling that I was on holiday.

Early morning, Tarbert
While much of Tarbert was still sleeping, my quick walk around the harbour before breakfast presented dramatic skies and the first signs that a change in the weather might be on the way
The Crinnan Canal
The Crinnan Canal

I was following NCR78, otherwise known as the Caledonian Cycle Way up the Kintyre Peninsula to Oban, then on beyond Fort William before heading west to eventually join the west coast roads used by motorists and cyclists on the NC500. The Crinnan Canal was a delight – a smooth flat gravel surface, and I took a few miles' detour to the far end of the canal at Crinnan.

Great Glen Way troubles
Great Glen Way troubles

From Fort William route 78 shares the Great Glen Way, on a good canalside track past Neptune’s Staircase, then above Loch Lochy towards the Laggan Lochs. They were harvesting the forest at one point, the huge machines occupying the entire track, but all work stopped as I gingerly wheeled the bike past intimidatingly big forestry machines. The track is definitely not recommended for anything other than mountain bikes or gravel bikes. My whole body felt rattled after 20km of rough track!

Greatest concentration of Munros
Greatest concentration of Munros

Between the Cluanie Inn and Torridon lie the greatest concentration of Munros in Scotland, and I was to ride past nearly all of them on one of my favourite days. Overnight blizzards had crowned every mountain with a veil of ice, the air was crystal clear and I was to finally join the NC500 route at Lochcarron, before reaching Torridon – 101km, my longest day yet.

Eilean Donan Castle and Loch Alsh
Eilean Donan Castle and Loch Alsh

While Eilean Donan Castle temporarily landed me in a tourist trap of coach trippers and international tourists, the view west down Loch Alsh to the mountains of Skye left me spellbound. Grabbing a hot cup of tea, I dodged the throng and quickly escaped, at last off the main A87 onto a minor road to Strathcarron, Lochcarron and beyond.

Scurr A’Chaorachain
Scurr A’Chaorachain, Beinn Bhan and (not!) the Bealach na Ba

I could see the line of the Applecross road as occasional campervans and cars crawled up towards the Bealach na Ba, but what really interested me was the great bulk of Scurr A’Chaorachain, which had been visible for miles, looming dark and impressive. I had now entered the northern highlands, the roads were empty and the weather was definitely changing.

Beinn Eighe national nature reserve
Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

Cold, windy, squally showers of sleet, snow and hail. The Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve covers 1363 acres of moorland, ancient pine forest and lochs, and is home to pine martens, wildcats, golden eagles and ravens. I had briefly seen a pine marten near Loch Awe, but today was a day when all wildlife would be sheltering. During one ferocious squall I sat in my bivvy shelter for 20 minutes, catching up on hydration and eating two chocolate bars one after the other!

Approaching Poolewe
Approaching Poolewe

Loch Marie was the furthest north I had been, until now. Now I was definitely entering new territory, welcomed by torrential rain and wind! I was just able to look across the loch to Slioch before it was obscured by cloud. Stopping at the Old Inn Gairloch, they took pity on the dripping cyclist and let me in early for a hearty Cullen Skink, which sustained me through the afternoon to Aultbea. The wind had by then reached near gale force, with gusts that almost brought me to a standstill.

This was the breakfast tray that arrived for me at Cartmel B&B in Aultbea. I had been warmly welcomed, my wet clothes washed and dried, and with a cabinet of cycle tools, I was all set for the next few days. My accommodation choices had been limited in early season, mixing youth hostels, B&Bs, a couple of nice hotels and even a camping pod. Everyone was friendly and helpful, ensuring my bike was stored dry and safely overnight, and every breakfast kept me going for most of the day!

I had wanted to see Stac Pollaidh, and there is was! If the weather had been different my plan would have been to follow the tiny coast road past this shapely peak, but I would have been alone on the road, with little prospect of any passing traffic all day, and it didn’t somehow feel like a good idea.

Instead, I spent some time at the unmanned visitor centre at Knockan Crag, famous for two geologists in the late 1800s discovering billion-year-old Moine Schist lying above younger Cambrian limestone. The Moine Thrust marks where the Laurentia plate (later to be Scotland, Greenland and North America) collided with the plate containing England and Scandinavia.

Feeling pretty remote at this point, Quinag stands prominent and magnificent, the northernmost of a long line of Torridonian sandstone mountains

From Scourie, the views of Arkle and the mountains to the east near Laxford looked alpine with their recent thick covering of snow. I would see these mountains again from the other side a day later while cycling along the shores of Loch Eriboll, on my way from Durness to Bettyhill.

Smoo cave
Smoo cave, how different the weather can be!

Exactly 20 minutes earlier, I had been ‘rescued’ by two guys in a road maintenance truck, who had seen me crouched over, clinging onto my bike during a ferocious blizzard a few miles from Durness. At Durness the sun came out! Smoo Cave is a super spot, well worth a quick visit.

East of Thurso
A dawn start from Thurso rewarded me with this view across Dunnet bay. The reward having been to have survived 3 miles of cycling over an inch of fresh hailstones which crackled alarmingly beneath my tyres.
Through Strathnaver
Through Strathnaver to the Crask Inn
Isolated, achingly beautiful, Strathnaver was devastated during the highland clearances. This single track road leads past Loch Naver to Altnahara, then up to the Crask Inn, possibly the most remote pubs in the British Isles. The blanket bog of the Flow Country stores about 400 million tonnes of carbon, which is more than three times the amount of all of Britain’s woodlands. Sunset at the Crask Inn is special.
Crossing the Kessock Bridge to Inverness, a path and cycletrack protects you, until the other side, where you are tipped onto a giant roundabout. Quite a shock after two weeks of deserted roads!

From Inverness Jonathan joined me for the final four days of the trip to Edinburgh. The highest point of the entire trip was the Drumochter Pass at 460m, then down to lovely Dunkeld. A few more stern hills still had to be climbed before finally crossing the Forth and finishing the trip in the centre of Edinburgh.

I had covered 1590km, around 1000 miles, and had climbed a total of 16,576m – almost double the height of Everest.

I returned a lot stronger, and those big Scottish breakfasts had sustained me to the extent that I returned the same weight as I had started!

It was a fantastic trip. I had wanted an adventure on my own, just me, responsible for my own safety and decisions. It had been challenging with wind and weather, but I had loved every minute of it.

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